It may not have been Christmas exactly, but the ancient Roman Saturnalia (17th-23rd. December) was certainly an opportunity for feasting and gift-giving. Over the years, this time of merry-making, sacrifices and gift-giving expanded to a week and the poet Catullus - who knew a thing or two about parties - called it 'the best of days'.
In many ways this ancient festival was rather like Christmas:
Schools were on holiday.
Gambling was allowed.
Shopping at special markets was encouraged.
Holiday clothes were worn - the informal, colourful 'dining clothes' instead of the plain, bulky toga.
Presents were given - parrots, wax candles, dice, combs, perfumes, little pottery dolls.
Feasting was indulged, with Saturn himself in charge as Lord of Misrule.
People wished each other a merry Saturnalia with the evocation, 'io Saturnalia!' ('Yo Saturnalia!')
My ancient Roman historical romance Flavia's Secret has its climax and ending during the Saturnalia.
The Pompeiian partygoers in the picture come from the BBC's Ancient Rome pages.
Here is an excerpt from Flavia's Secret. Flavia is in ancient Roman Bath, Aqaue Sulis, shopping for last-minute items needed for the Saturnalia.
Flavia was as quick as she could be but there were queues everywhere in the food shops and spice and trinket stalls as slaves and even citizens shopped for last minute items for the Saturnalia. It was the first time she had been in the city this close to the festival. In other years, Lady Valeria had given her people small gifts of pickled fish and nuts but had otherwise ignored the Saturnalia, insisting that her servants remain indoors and serve her, rather than follow the tradition that at the Saturnalia the household slaves for one day at least were waited on by their masters.
‘The Saturnalia is a rowdy, vulgar, drunken festival, little more than an orgy,’ Lady Valeria had complained. ‘I will have no part of it in my house.’
Her words may have been true, but as the morning progressed, Flavia saw little to alarm her. The people in these snowy streets were intent on their money or goods. A few roughly-dressed men were crouched over gaming tables and she passed a group of giggling young slave girls, all waving napkins given to them as presents, but there was no sign of drunkenness or of wild orgies. Many workshops were shuttered and closed and houses the same. There was a distant grumble of noise coming from the theatre, close to the great bathing complex, but no raised voices.
Unsure whether to be glad or disappointed, Flavia swapped her basket from one arm to the other and sped on through the slushy snow. She longed to stay and find some gifts for Gaius and the others - especially for Marcus, her heart whispered - but she still had not enough money of her own. With a sigh, her final purchase haggled for and bought, she turned to make her way home, avoiding the wine shops and taverns and drawing her shawl over her blonde hair each time she crossed a busy street.
She was close to the blank front entrance of the deserted villa where she had taken Marcus to see the secret garden and pool when she heard the sounds of flutes and drums approaching from a narrow, snow-filled alleyway.
‘Ow!’ She put a hand to her ear, which had just begun to sting. A small apple lay at her feet in the snow and as she stared at it, she realized that it must have been thrown down at her from the upper living quarters over one of the shuttered shops.
‘To Saturnalia!’ roared a good-natured male voice overhead. More small apples and nuts and then a cluster of sweetmeats rained down on Flavia and others in the street. People scrambled on hands and knees to pick up the fruit and other foods, while the racket of the flutes and drums drew nearer.
A prickle of alarm, cold as an icicle, shot down the length of Flavia’s back. Trusting her instincts, honed by years of slavery, she flattened herself into the nearest shadowy doorway, glad of her inconspicuous brown gown as she veiled her face with one end of the shawl. Scarcely breathing, she waited for this parade to go by.
They were all men. At least a score of brightly-dressed young men, several puffing cheerfully on long flutes or banging on drums and all with the rich, sleek look of Roman aristocrats and the free-born. These were revelers: quite a few clutched jugs of beer or wine which they carelessly drank from. Flavia prayed they would not notice her.
The last stragglers swayed past her hiding place. One, stumbling in the snow with heavy deliberateness, dropped to his knees close to where she was. He did not see her, but his two friends, slithering over the slush and ice to haul him up, spotted the small, wary figure in the shadows and shouted.
‘Hey, girl, join us!’
‘Let me give you something,’ the second leered, making a crude gesture with his hand.
Flavia darted away before the two men trapped her in the doorway.
‘Hey, come back!’
‘We have the wine and you are the orgy!’
Backing along the street, Flavia heard an ominous silence descend among the flute players and drummers. Walking as rapidly as she could in a clumsy, sideways fashion, she did not speak, or run. She did not want to provoke them.
Under her fear, her mind was still working. If she could only reach the crossroads, she would take the short-cut down the street of the fullers and make for the shrine of the goddess Sulis at the Roman baths. She was Christian but these men were pagans. Surely they would respect their own sacred place? Surely the goddess would protect her?
None of the other bystanders or shoppers raised a word against the rich, spoilt Romans. Flavia knew she was alone and would have to deal with them herself. She thought of Marcus, going into battle, facing down his enemies. He had not turned and run, and she would not.
One step after another, she edged along the twisting, foul-smelling street of the fullers, who today at least were not laboring over their vats of washing.
‘Hey, she is leaving us!’
‘Going away, the stuck-up -’
Flavia closed her ears and tightened her grip on her basket. She could see the flute players and drummers returning to join their more drunk companions, see them pointing at her, muttering among themselves.
But I am going to make it, she thought desperately, just as the hue and cry began:
‘Run her down!’
‘We need no toga girls if we grab her!’
‘Why pay for pleasure when we can have it for free?’
Flavia was already running, pelting along the street as if there was no snow underfoot, losing things out of her basket and not caring what they were. Panting, her vision beginning to double as she sprinted at the very limit of her speed, she fixed on the temple of the goddess Sulis and fled her leaden-footed, cursing pursers.
‘Come here, you -’
Behind her, a coarse hand grabbed at her shawl. She tore it away, escaping again, and passed bare-headed into the temple precinct of the shrine and bathing complex where she collapsed, sobbing but safe, against one of the many smoking altars.